Aristide's Tinderbox

Haitian Militants Losing Faith in President’s Promise of Reform

Pierre Fabienne cradles his baby in his arms as his girlfriend, a shy-eyed beauty, stands in the doorway of their home on a noisy lane in Port-au-Prince's impoverished Cite Soleil quarter. Fabienne, a gang leader and supporter of embattled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was instrumental in organizing a cease-fire among most of the district's warring factions last February. He hasn't gotten much in return for his efforts at diplomacy.

"I've sat with Aristide many times and I still have nothing," says Fabienne (not his real name). "I still have the same room that I pay $300 for six months"—about U.S. $50—"no TV, no nothing, and Aristide knows that I'm a militant for change. He knows I fight for him. When he has something in Port-au-Prince, he calls us. When he wants people to go to his rally in Leogane, he calls us. When he's afraid of a coup d'état, he calls us. He wants us to stay in Cite Soleil, so no one hears about Cite Soleil, so he can call on us whenever he needs us to do something."

In Haiti's ramshackle and decaying capital of 2 million, where exuberantly colored tap-tap buses speed through congested streets blaring sinuous compas music and dark, mysterious mountains rise out of the bay, Cite Soleil's 200,000 residents have long formed the backbone of support for Aristide. Just north of Fort Dimanche—a former prison and torture center favored by former dictators Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier now turned into a squatter camp—and pinioned away from the rest of the city by dusty, potholed Route Nationale 1, Cite Soleil is a place where political activism and a criminal element born of desperate poverty exist side by side.

Pierre Fabienne: Diplomatic efforts brought little reward.
photo: Chantal Regnault
Pierre Fabienne: Diplomatic efforts brought little reward.

The tension between the two worlds exploded last month when Amiot Metayer, a political militant and gang leader, was freed by machine-gun-wielding members of his "Cannibal Army," who attacked the Gonaives jail he was being held in with a bulldozer. Metayer had been arrested on suspicion of ordering buildings torched during an outbreak of violence with a rival gang leader. Upon his release, he denounced Aristide, vowing to "fight to the death" any attempt to put him back in prison.

Once, people like Metayer and Fabienne celebrated Aristide. After his first election in 1990, it was the people of the slums who danced in the streets, carrying Aristide's picture and rejoicing at the ouster of the military dictatorship. When Aristide was himself ousted in a bloody coup d'état the next year, the residents of Cite Soleil fought for his return. They endured the nighttime terror of raids by the FRAPH (Front Révolutionnaire Pour l'Avancement et le Progrès d'Haiti) death squads, and often turned up tortured on narrow muddy lanes for uttering the deposed president's name.

Today, however, it is these same militants, claiming they feel forgotten and betrayed, who have begun to call for Aristide's removal, and for the dismissal of both his ruling Lavalas Family political party and Haiti's roundly loathed political opposition, the Convergence Democratique coalition. They argue it's the only way to restore the hope of a just nation that people in the district had fought for for so long. This is no polite debate.

In May, three local activists were shot dead by police, who later claimed to have been attacked by gangs. Local residents, for their part, charged the activists were shot while arriving at an arranged meeting with police. The killings triggered two days of shooting between police and gangs, leaving a pervasive suspicion among locals that, having outlived their usefulness, the militants have become targets.

When asked about the situation at a recent press conference, Aristide replied: "The people of Cite Soleil are the sons and daughters of the country. Their rights are violated when they cannot eat; their rights are violated when they cannot go to school. We must work with all sectors, the opposition and the elite, to improve their lives. We are committed to working with them and we will not rest until we do that."

"We have to protect the rights of every citizen," Aristide added, "but we must also protect those who are visiting Haiti and who live in Haiti."

In Cite Soleil, people are preparing to protect themselves. "I don't think that this government will change, and I don't think that the opposition will change, either," says Dessalines Jacques, a muscular man who takes his name from Haiti's greatest hero, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, creator of the national flag and victor over the colonizing French. This Dessalines, clad in a blue tank top, has just finished inspecting bags of weapons—9mms, shotguns, and M-1s—that Cite Soleil has held in its grasp to ensure it will never again be defenseless.

He says the people need a rache manyok, a peasant expression that literally means to "pull up your manioc"—a root vegetable—but is used by militants to mean getting rid of something tainted or corrupt. "We could form a new political movement, but we cannot do it on our own," he says. "We need all of Haiti's nine departments, plus the Tenth Department"—the name Aristide gave to the estimated 1 million Haitians living abroad—"because we are the children of the Tenth Department. And they know that their children are suffering here."

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